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Hurricane Sandy: Mobile, Social Tools Help Emergency Management

Everbridge emergency alert system is being used by several cities in the path of Hurricane Sandy and offers a mobile app and social media monitoring capabilities to give emergency responders a better picture of a crisis.

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The emergency alert system in use by a number of cities in the path of Hurricane Sandy recently added a mobile app and social media monitoring as additional tools for emergency managers.

Several cities in Connecticut, including New Haven and West Haven, use the Everbridge system, and the Town of Middlefield just recently implemented it. The primary function of the cloud service is to blast out automated phone, mobile, phone, text message and email notifications to the residents of a town (or the employees of a subscribing company), for example warning of flooding conditions in a particular area during a hurricane. With an upgrade launched earlier this month, Everbridge added the ability to send out notifications through social media as well -- and, more importantly, monitor social channels for chatter about a developing crisis. In addition, Everbridge added a mobile app capable that allows citizens to participate more actively in the response to an emergency, for example by allowing them to relay pictures of a dangerous situation to emergency response coordinators as it is happening.

Not surprisingly, emergency coordinators in the path of the storm were unavailable to talk about the use of the software Monday morning, so it's not clear how many Everbridge users will actually be taking advantage of these new capabilities. Emergency operators in West Haven said the fire chief responsible for the use of the alert system was unavailable and shuttled an interview request off to police spokesperson Brett Schneider. Schneider said the police department did have a social media monitoring program in place, but not based on Everbridge, and he wasn't directly familiar with how Everbridge is used.

[ Hashtags for safety. Hurricane Sandy: Social Media Resources.]

However, an emergency manager on the other side of the country said he has been working social media monitoring with Everbridge into his emergency planning. "It's a way for us to pay attention to what people are saying and dispel any rumors that might be out there," said Patrick Maynard, program administrator for the alerts system with the Ventura County Sheriff's Department Emergency Services, who was a beta tester for the new version of the service.

Twitter posts "can be plotted on a map, helping us see where we need to send additional law enforcement or fire personnel," Maynard said in an interview. "It's an additional tool in our toolbox -- it's not going to be a cure-all -- but with minimal staffing during an incident when we're taxed for resources, we can have one person look at all these feeds and monitor conversations with the portal. So of course it's a force multiplier."

Social media capabilities were part of the list of requirements he developed when looking for a new mass alert system, Maynard said. The primary reason Ventura County was looking for an upgrade was capacity, he said. By switching to a cloud service, the county gets access to a "near infinite" number of phone lines for making lots of outbound calls quickly. Previously, the county used an on premises system, which was limited by the capacity of the phone system, he said.

A recent study by the American Red Cross showed that citizens are increasingly likely to monitor social media and mobile apps for information about a crisis or how to respond to it. Social media is being incorporated into emergency management plans at FEMA, as well as many other businesses and government agencies.

However, since disruptions in power and Internet access can interfere with social media as a medium for broadcasting messages, Everbridge Chief Strategy Officer Imad Mouline said he considers it a secondary channel.

"What we're using social media for is not necessarily to disseminate the message -- it's the other way around," he said. "We're not looking at additional tweets but looking for patterns." For example, corporate customers might monitor for the use of the hashtag #OWS, used by the Occupy Wall Street movement, within a geographic radius of their offices and send an automated alert to security managers about a possible disruption in the area. Corporate security could in turn make the call to send a broadcast message to employees advising them to work from home that day or take other measures for their safety, Mouline said.

Everbridge offers a similar system for generating automated alerts based on weather systems. Ventura County's Maynard said he wants to use that capability to activate emergency personnel in the event of a tsunami warning. "We have 44 miles of coastline here. If a tsunami warning was issued, we would receive an alert through the RSS feed and could automatically launch a reverse conference call" dialing out to critical personnel and joining them to the discussion. "It never fails that these things happen at 2:30 in the morning."

The addition of a mobile app "allows for richer two-way communication, where as a recipient you can get a notification and also give us back information," Mouline said. "If you wish to share and provide context about your perspective on the ground, we can do that."

With a voice or text message notification, there's a limited feedback capability -- for example, a corporate or university notification system might prompt recipients to "press 1 if you're okay," he said. The app allows end users to send back photos and other messages tagged with their location.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard and facebook.com/thebyard

Social media make the customer more powerful than ever. Here's how to listen and react. Also in the new, all-digital The Customer Really Comes First issue of The BrainYard: The right tools can help smooth over the rough edges in your social business architecture. (Free registration required.)

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